You Can Stop Cleaning Your Mail Now
As our first long read this week says, our understanding of the Coronavirus has been only gradually improving through this pandemic. One of the new findings seem to be the relatively low probability of surfaces (door knobs, railings, delivery packages, etc) as a source of infection. Derek Thompson, in this piece in the Atlantic talks about this in detail and suggests why we must get over our obsession over scrubbing inanimate objects for not just because the threat is low but more because it tends to give a false sense of security and let our guard down. The piece recommends we must still follow the drill – wash our hands, wear a mask and maintain social distance.
“As a covid-19 summer surge sweeps the country, deep cleans are all the rage.
National restaurants such as Applebee’s are deputizing sanitation czars to oversee the constant scrubbing of window ledges, menus, and high chairs. The gym chain Planet Fitness is boasting in ads that “there’s no surface we won’t sanitize, no machine we won’t scrub.” New York City is shutting down its subway system every night, for the first time in its 116-year history, to blast the seats, walls, and poles with a variety of antiseptic weaponry, including electrostatic disinfectant sprays.
…There is a historical echo here. After 9/11, physical security became a national obsession, especially in airports, where the Transportation Security Administration patted down the crotches of innumerable grandmothers for possible explosives. My colleague Jim Fallows repeatedly referred to this wasteful bonanza as “security theater.”
COVID-19 has reawakened America’s spirit of misdirected anxiety, inspiring businesses and families to obsess over risk-reduction rituals that make us feel safer but don’t actually do much to reduce risk—even as more dangerous activities are still allowed. This is hygiene theater.
…the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidelines to clarify that while COVID-19 spreads easily among speakers and sneezers in close encounters, touching a surface “isn’t thought to be the main way the virus spreads.” Other scientists have reached a more forceful conclusion. “Surface transmission of COVID-19 is not justified at all by the science,” Emanuel Goldman, a microbiology professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.
Surface transmission—from touching doorknobs, mail, food-delivery packages, and subways poles—seems quite rare. (Quite rare isn’t the same as impossible: The scientists I spoke with constantly repeated the phrase “people should still wash their hands.”) The difference may be a simple matter of time. In the hours that can elapse between, say, Person 1 coughing on her hand and using it to push open a door and Person 2 touching the same door and rubbing his eye, the virus particles from the initial cough may have sufficiently deteriorated.
All those studies that made COVID-19 seem likely to live for days on metal and paper bags were based on unrealistically strong concentrations of the virus. As he explained to me, as many as 100 people would need to sneeze on the same area of a table to mimic some of their experimental conditions. The studies “stacked the deck to get a result that bears no resemblance to the real world,” Goldman said.
A good case study of how the coronavirus spreads, and does not spread, is the famous March outbreak in a mixed-use skyscraper in Seoul, South Korea. On one side of the 11th floor of the building, about half the members of a chatty call center got sick. But less than 1 percent of the remainder of the building contracted COVID-19, even though more than 1,000 workers and residents shared elevators and were surely touching the same buttons within minutes of one another. “The call-center case is a great example,” says Donald Schaffner, a food-microbiology professor who studies disease contamination at Rutgers University. “You had clear airborne transmission with many, many opportunities for mass fomite transmission in the same place. But we just didn’t see it.”
The scientists I spoke with emphasized that people should still wash their hands, avoid touching their face when they’ve recently been in public areas, and even use gloves in certain high-contact jobs. They also said deep cleans were perfectly justified in hospitals. But they pointed out that the excesses of hygiene theater have negative consequences.
“People have prevention fatigue,” Goldman told me. “They’re exhausted by all the information we’re throwing at them. We have to communicate priorities clearly; otherwise, they’ll be overloaded.”